Independence Or Freedom
On the 15th of August we celebrate Independence Day—the anniversary of the day we gained independence. That day the bruised and battered British Crown was forced to relinquish control of the Indian colony back to the Indians, allowing us to take control of our destiny. That was also the day we won freedom—or so many would argue. On this last point, they would be wrong.
Many confuse independence with freedom; yet there remains a fundamental difference between the two. And some would argue that we had more of the latter when we had none of the former. During the anniversary of this critical event in Indian history it is important to understand what was gained—and what we have left to accomplish.
Independence is a fairly simple concept. It is self-reliance, self-determination, and self-rule. A people are independent when they are neither controlled nor dependent upon anyone else. They are independent when they govern themselves, and owe allegiance to no other. Independence is exactly what we gained from the British. Independence is what we have maintained—through policies like the Non-Aligned Movement and a strong military. According to Suraj, a physician, “The fact that we have defended our independence for sixty years is an achievement.”
On the other hand freedom is a much more complex idea. Tagore defined it best; describing a free nation as “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/Where knowledge is free/Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/By narrow domestic walls.” Freedom is a state of mind as well as a state of being. Unfortunately we’ve not built a nation as free as it is independent. In some ways we are less free than our revolutionary ancestors.
The first thing that keeps us bound is the rampant propagation of communalism—which drowns out nationalism far too often. Our regional, caste-based and religious identities have become much more relevant than our national identity. Any issue, any controversy, or any crime in the paper takes on a communal bent. The generic hooliganism of politicians becomes a religious affront; a gangland murder becomes a hate crime. States are splitting apart based on caste and creed, with protests often turning violent. Politicians succeed or fail based not on holistic development, but on appealing to communal interests.
This isn’t just a social ill; it cuts against the freedom of everyone in the nation. When we are at one another’s throats it becomes difficult to think freely. Fear and hate grow like weeds—closing minds and creating violence in Muzaffarnagar, Delhi, Deganga and Gujarat. In such a climate of fear and hypersensitivity we cannot be free—in thought, in speech, or in deed.
Our forefathers were freer from these pressures. The enemy was the Crown, and all Indians were one. Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus were united against the enemy, as were the north and south. Hindu girls would go to madrasas to tie Rakhis, something unthinkable today. Once we lost the greater enemy we fell back into petty differences. We have been unable to build a nation strong enough to supersede our differences yet—but the British enemy had.
All this communalism also strikes at our ability to choose an identity. When all the states, castes and religions are at one another’s throats they become much more insular. Before a man could choose his religion and live where he wished. Gandhi’s own son converted back and forth from Hinduism to Islam without consequence, and lived in several different parts of the nation. Now we have the Marathi Manoos trying to drive other races from Maharashtra, while Telangana has been carved out on the basis of caste. Religious groups see one another with suspicion, and often through a haze of violence. In this atmosphere, it is very hard to view other groups objectively—much less to join them.
Then there is cultural freedom. Our rebellious ancestors were deeply rooted in tradition. Indeed what many were fighting for was our heritage and culture. Mangal Panday rose in mutiny over a violation of his religion. Bhagat Singh read Lennon and wore a hat; but he fought for Bharat, not India. Prashant*, a scholar explains: “Back then we were fighting for more than a subcontinent. We were fighting for a way of life, and the nation of Bharat.”
This isn’t to say that people weren’t learning from the west. Many reforms were spurred on by British sensibilities—like banning sati and allowing widows to remarry. Revolutionaries were open to western ideas, and adopted what they could. This was a time of intellectual growth and great freethinking—each was able to adopt and reform whatever aspect of eastern and western culture they wished. Brown sahibs and khadi clad warriors fought together against the Crown.
Journalist Akhil* sums it up: “Back then people were able to remain true to our own culture if they wished. Now the west is the ideal.” Intellectuals and urbanites cling to the cultural offal of the west as sacred and hip. One need only see the hordes outside a Starbucks outlet to grasp the depths of our cultural servitude.
Meanwhile what is traditional is viewed with scorn. Modernity and secularism are used to deride the every aspect of Indian tradition. Adhering to the ways of our fathers is seen as ignorant at best, and offensive at worst. Even philosophical texts like the Gita are viewed with hostility. Attorney Asha* says, “Things have gotten so bad that a Hindu Prime Minister’s visit to a temple has become controversial. Practicing one’s religion is viewed as an attack.” We are no longer free to respect our heritage.
Yet there is one form of freedom we should be glad to be rid of—the freedom from responsibility. When we were a colony we had no control over governance—but that also absolved us of responsibility. The British ran the country and any failure was theirs alone. Revolutionaries actively caused such failure to undermine the British rule—they were free from consequences. The buck stopped at Buckingham Palace.
Now we are independent; we are a democracy. The buck stops with the citizenry—every man woman and child in the country. When we chose to build a nuclear reactor the consequences are ours. When we chose to negotiate with Pakistan the decision is ours, as is the responsibility. We are not free from consequences, and we are not free to ignore the way we influence the nation and the world at large.
This responsibility is important—indeed it is vital to the exercise of freedom. It gives each choice weight—it makes each decision a moral valance. Each choice reflects our worth and our moral values. With this responsibility comes moral agency—the ability to affect the world. Our freedom has gained value—the greatest victories of 1947.
We have a great debt to our forefathers. They fought and bled for independence—believing that only with independence could freedom be achieved. But now in over sixty years we have built a nation granting less freedom than they had enjoyed. Communalism and western ideologies have taken away the people’s freedom. It is time for us to rise to the standards of the revolutionaries—and build freedom atop our independence.
By Akash Kashyap